Still Lives and Emotional Content

Edouard Manet

“The air one sees in paintings of the masters cannot be breathed.”


Many great minds from the ancients through to the moderns have observed that one of the functions of Art is to make the familiar appear new — to open our eyes, or perhaps it is our hearts that are being unfurled. The world’s beauty and splendor have of course been there all along, but the cataracts of daily use dull our perception, so we fail to see what is gleaming obviously in plain sight.

Still lives as a genre illustrate this more explicitly for me than other types of visual art. It is curious that they are generally held in lower esteem than other categories of paintings — often pigeonholed as learning exercises, or the occupation of amateurs. In some cultures, they were considered appropriate for women painters who were not believed capable of painting in the more esteemed genres. Rarely are the still lives of even the acknowledged great masters viewed by critics and art historians with the same regard as their other paintings. There has been the rare exception to these prevailing views. Joseph Conrad described still lives as a “single-minded effort to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.”

The type casting of the genre in Europe began in the mid-17th century when the French Academy’s reverence for Italian Art caused them to devalue the Netherlandish with its focus on the mundane and domestic. Still lives were commonplace and valued in northern European art, where they were often mimetic or representational to an excessive degree. This pure representation of visual reality may have been one of the reasons for their undervaluation. Until quite recently there has been the belief that Art had to have a moral or symbolic content. This began of course with Plato’s view that the visual arts were immoral to a certain degree, and his dislike of representation for its own sake. Perhaps there is some truth in this. The aesthetics of the visual arts are so based in the sensual world that that they exclude morality. Beauty is not inherently right or wrong. It simply exists.

Edouard Manet

The distain for still lives does not hold with painters themselves. They are the most common genre of painting given as gifts from one artist to another. Manet’s gorgeous painting of a note, violets, and a fan given to Berthe Morisot is but one example of this. Manet himself stated that, “Still lives are the touchstone of the painter. A painter can say all he wants with fruit and flowers.” I believe what he alluding to here is that still lives show quite clearly the depth of perception of the painter. The artist who can see deeper and more profoundly, who has a greater depth of soul and thus equipped can produce truer and more profound images. The soul of the artist resides in the peony on the canvas — available to amaze any with eyes to see.

Chardin is exemplary of the genre. Van Gogh, himself an avid and perceptive connoisseur of paintings, likened the greatness of Chardin to that of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Which places these apparently simple paintings in rarefied company indeed. Chardin who was criticized by his peers for painting from nature believed, “We have to teach our eyes to look at nature; and there are many who have never seen it and never will.”

Jean Chardin

Degas, Manet’s friend and contemporary, was one of those intentionally blind to nature saying, “Boredom soon overcomes me when I am contemplating nature.” Like the salon academics who distained Chardin’s works as minor Degas believed that it was better to paint out of the mind and memory and not from a model. He believed that something composed out of whole cloth was superior in a creative sense than painting from nature. Degas left few still lives or landscapes as a result. Our loss and his no doubt.

It is one thing to express emotion and soul when one is painting the human figure as Degas and many others so often accomplished. It seems to me a miracle of a higher order when this is achieved while painting a composition of inanimate objects arranged on a table. Cezanne spoke of Chardin enveloping his subjects in, “a mist of emotions”. How is this even possible to imbue a vase of flowers with feelings? It is certainly rare. There are far fewer painters capable of greatness in still life compared to greatness in other genres. The notoriously difficult to please Goncourt brothers agreed, “He (Chardin) raised this secondary branch of painting to the highest level of Art. Who has expressed as he has expressed the life of inanimate objects?” There is a mystery here. Still lives are highly imitative in appearance yet at the same time highly abstract in their reflections of emotion. The artist asks us to participate in this difficult task of imbuing the dead object with life. Few artists are capable of it, nor are all viewers able to perceive it.

Many pre-seventeenth Cent. still lives certainly were charged with intentional symbolic content. Actual momento mori like skulls and the slightly less obvious symbolism of time pieces were often part of the vocabulary. There was a less apparent, but still quite visible emphasis on the vanitas of life in the many iterations of the paintings representing the four senses that were briefly popular. Symbolism is hard to evade. As Oscar Wilde so succinctly phrased it, “Art is at once surface and symbol.” The fragile and short-lived flowers and fruit which are such common still life subjects hint at the shortness of life in general. Manet painted more peonies than any other flower; once cut they survive but a day. The many still lives of food or ingredients hint at both the gift of sustenance and the temporality of the culinary arts.

Francisco de Zurbaran

The painting that sparked my recent intense interest in still lives is Zurbaran’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose. It is a treasure displayed with pride of place at the Norton Simon. While the museum contains the best collection of old masters on the west coast this gem glows more brightly than any of the many other jewels collected there in Pasadena.

It is for a still life executed at an unusually large scale. It is roughly four feet by two. The images are larger than life size which has traditionally been frowned upon by academicians and critics. Some analysists have imbued it with religious and symbolic content based mainly on its tripartite structure alluding to The Trinity and the fact that many of Zurbaran’s paintings were commissioned by religious orders. Confusedly they see allusion to The Virgin as well in the rose and the water glass. Radiography has shown that the original painting once contained a plate of candied sweet potatoes that has been painted over. So, I have to think that Zurbaran’s subject was the more mundane beauty and flavors of the world itself and not some world beyond.

And what beauty there is! The light which surrounds the objects is liquid and oblique creating the sensation that the fruit in particular is glowing lantern like from within. The colors are extraordinary with an almost hallucinogenic vividness — the yellow of the citrons in particular. The emotional content is difficult to pinpoint but seems to reside in the mournful green of the orange leaves and blossoms spraying out above the basket of the fruit. The entire ensemble is devastating and unforgettable once seen — truly seen as Chardin would no doubt add. Because here we are not simply seeing a table with some fruit displayed on it. We are seeing all the glory and pathos of the world itself and ourselves as part and parcel of it.

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